Best offensive line in the country? How coach Darrell Funk is tempering the hype
There are plenty of teaching moments to keep players humble, says veteran offensive line coach
Cal transfer running back Chris Brooks calls his offensive line at BYU the best in the country.
Tackle Blake Freeland, ranked by Pro Football Focus as the No. 7 tackle in the country, claims the Cougars have 10 starters who can play the five O-line positions.
On Thursday, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick told 1280 The Zone radio hosts, “This is as good a group of offensive linemen I’ve ever been around.”
It’s hype in its elevated form. It’s what is said in the offseason and it’s what media folks quote because it makes good copy and tasty sound bites.
So, how does offensive line coach Darrell Funk “manage” the increasing interest surrounding the dozen monster linemen he’s been working with during BYU’s spring football?
Is he a man behind the team room door, bracing the doorknob with a chair, trying to control what bloated praise might find the ears of his guys?
Who's got the best Offensive Line in the country?— BYU Sports Nation (@BYUSportsNation) March 29, 2022
According to @chris_br0oks26, it's @BYUFOOTBALL 🏈 pic.twitter.com/A7vrtgte33
“No,” said Funk on Monday following drills. “They are a good-looking bunch and they’ve got a lot of game experience and they’re long and athletic. Everything is exciting for sure.”
On the other hand, says Funk, he can take cutouts of last season and show every returning player where they can improve, little things where, if executed correctly, could have led to 20 or 30 extra rushing yards per game.
“I just temper my excitement and just make sure we know we can get a lot better. I know it sounds like coach-speak and a cliche and all, but it’s true. We are working on it slowly but surely.”
Funk returns all his starters with the exception of center James Empey. In 2021 games when Empey was injured at times, his replacement was freshman Connor Pay, who proved a worthy center in the lineup. It is now said Pay can play all five O-line positions heading into his sophomore season.
At 6-foot-5, 312 pounds, Pay might just be the shortest offensive lineman in Funk’s group.
In fact, for the first time in his three-decade coaching career, Funk, who is 6-5 himself, says his family teases him on game days when the linemen surround him, saying their dad is the runt of the bunch, dwarfed by BYU’s linemen.
Freeland, Harris LaChance and Brayden Keim are all 6-8; Tyler Little is 6-7. The 6-6 guys include Clark Barrington, Campbell Barrington, Kingsley Suamataia and Keanu Saleapaga. All but Campbell Barrington go over 310 pounds and all have arms as long as tree branches.
OK, the tree branches reference is a little out there.
One of my favorite O-lineman stories is of Bryan May, who blocked for Heisman winner Ty Detmer. On a trip to play Hawaii in Honolulu, May got in the elevator with some Japanese women tourists at the hotel near Waikiki Beach. One of the women, speaking in Japanese, said “Look, he is like a monster.” To her horror, May, who served a mission to Japan, answered her back in her native tongue, saying something like, “Yes, I am a big man.”
May was only 6-0, 280.
Imagine if it had been the 6-8, 315-pound LaChance.
“We’ve got 10 guys who can start,” Blake Freeland on the offensive line pic.twitter.com/ZAIqjIcgX2— Daily Universe Sports (@DailyUnivSports) March 28, 2022
Two things that most spring football observers can agree on is that Funk’s guys are very big. One, they are abnormally large human beings. Two, there are a lot of them.
“I think we’ve got more bodies this spring,” said Funk. He has been able to take the most experienced players and mix in newcomers to give them experience. His third string has received a lot of reps, which is important.
He’s also been able to protect some stars from injury while subbing in other bodies. Clark Barrington has been held out. He has been listed as the No. 10 interior lineman in the country by PFF.
Pay might be the shortest of his starting linemen, but Funk measured Pay with the pro-style bare-footed technique the other day and he was a shade over 6-5.
As Kalani Sitake winds down spring practice this week and Roderick fine-tunes what he wants to do in fall camp, the one thing that is not hype is how big the offensive linemen appear.
And they aren’t wearing lifts in their cleats.